The world got a shock last week when a new and particularly concerning variant of COVID-19 – now dubbed the Omicron variant – was spotted in southern Africa. Very quickly, scientists sounded the alarm: the Omicron variant, they warned, could be the worst variant yet.
After the past few days’ slew of bad news, though, here’s cause for optimism: early evidence suggests that most Omicron cases are “mild” – and there’s nothing so far that shows any reduction in vaccine efficacy against the new strain – according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Speaking to Reuters, an official from the Organization said that while there’s still a lot that’s unknown about the new variant, most cases seem to be mild. Although we’re pretty far from anything conclusive about the new strain, that would certainly agree with what doctors on the ground are saying. According to South African physician Dr Angelique Coetzee, who was one of the very first to suspect a new variant was circulating, Omicron typically causes “very, very mild symptoms” – including no reported loss of smell or taste and no major drop in oxygen levels. None of the infections she’s seen have resulted in hospitalization, although it's important to note that those early infections were reported in younger individuals.
“We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home,” Coetzee told Reuters on Sunday. “The most predominant clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days. With them, the headache and the body aches and pain.”
In neighboring Botswana, one health official reported on Tuesday that 16 out of the 19 reported cases of Omicron were completely asymptomatic. That’s more than 84 percent of cases, albeit in just a small sample.
Despite concerns Omicron may be more transmissible, vaccines are still likely to protect against severe illness, scientists in South Africa say. Studies into the exact impact on vaccine efficacy have already begun, but it’s likely to be a few weeks until we know for sure. Of course, that does mean we can’t say vaccines will work just as well against Omicron as they have against previous strains – but we can’t say we’re doomed either.
“We don’t have enough data to determine vaccine effectiveness against Omicron or disease severity, so any claims about either at this stage are not evidence-based,” Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told Bloomberg on Sunday. “So far, the virus has not mutated to become less severe – in fact the opposite.”
As well as these pieces of welcome news, the WHO also urged “an evidence-informed and risk-based approach” regarding travel bans. More than 50 countries have begun the process of implementing travel bans aimed at curtailing the spread of the new Omicron variant, but the WHO cautioned that such moves “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”